On Thursday night, Conan O’Brien hosted what he has said would be his final late-night television episode, on his last late-night television program. He began on TV as a largely unknown 30-year-old in 1993 with exactly the kind of pedigree you would’ve expected then: Harvard-taught, an alumnus of both The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live, an advocate for the weird and disruptive trends emerging in comedy to which, despite him being an Irish-Catholic Massachusetts native, he had a singular pulse.
My introduction to Conan’s work was via Late Night With Conan O’Brien, the show he hosted as the wedge between his beloved Johnny Carson and Jay Leno and which was repurposed as a day-after lead-in to The Daily Show on Comedy Central for a while. When it came time for Conan to assume his seat at the top of NBC’s hierarchy, it suffered from poor ratings and a shift back to late-night along with the Tonight Show name, which Conan would fundamentally not accept. A back-and-forth ensued, and Conan eventually ceded the seat, leaving us bereft of him for a time while he popped up on tour and at music festivals – more on that later.
I understand that his is mainly a slightly-older generation of an audience, the tweeners that both lived to experience Nevermind in real time, cognizant of it or not, and also know how to navigate social media without sparking fights at a dinner table, but my friends and I – white and well-off-ish enough as we were – liked Conan better than any of the others mostly because we never knew what to expect.
Below is a list, mostly off the top of my head, of my personal favorite Conan segments, recurring and otherwise. I know this isn’t the end, but HBOMax’s app is horrendous, and anyway, it isn’t as widely accessible as he has been for thirty years otherwise. Conan, we only wish you well, as you ever wished us.
Everything slips away, eventually. We have lost so much in 2020 that it’s hard to begin to comprehend it just yet. We might never get there. From the as-yet nearly two million deaths related to COVID-19 to the related job losses to the very idea of truth in a truthiness-saturated world, we are collectively losing many more things, and they are losing us, at a much faster rate than any of us living have ever experienced.
Something leaving us at precisely the same rate as it always has, however, is time. An unhuman entity forced us into our homes and away from our loved ones for long stretches; for once, it seemed, there was a problem that throwing federal government-level amounts of money wouldn’t fix. Most of us were forced to adapt; some didn’t, and died; others did, and died anyway. Time kept on slipping, in all its finite utility.
Under the circumstances, and with nowhere to go, it was up to us to spend a lot of time with ourselves. Election-year news cycles are Ringling Brothers productions gone awry in normal times, but taking in the news, even in the simple pursuit of attempting to stay anything like informed, was an especially depressing exercise in 2020.
What is “inessential”? Pieces of trivia are, by nature, tidbits and factoids that at best connect two seemingly disparate ideas to each other but, perhaps at their most quintessential, elicit nothing more than a “Huh, didn’t know that” from someone. There’s a reason trivia is (usually) a popular way for bars to kill time and fill people up with Miller Lite on non-sports nights; take that concept, turn the answers into questions, and voila: you’ve got a long-running syndicated game show.
Answer: this television figure, who died on Sunday at 80, hosted the longest-running iteration of Jeopardy! for 36 years. Who is Alex Trebek? Well, to many, he is so much more than the game show with which the rest of us will forever associate him.
In the pilot episode of Larry Charles’ Dangerous World of Comedy, the director of Borat and former Seinfeld writer timidly asks a reformed Liberian warlord known as General Butt Naked, “What does human flesh taste like?”
The General answers that it tastes like pork. This is the moment when a two-drink minimum seems like a great idea.
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Graphic by Brian Kraker
Another year down. Another year older, but perhaps none the wiser? Maybe that decision doesn’t belong to you alone. It felt like nothing did, most of the time. From Tide Pods to the Philly Special to countless acts of cruelty and many more of plain senselessness to the continued existence of the Golden State Warriors to having 12 years left to stop the sun to inexplicable blue lights over Astoria, everything that happened felt like it was going to happen anyway, sooner or later, and we were all left to bear it as best we could. Same as it ever was, but different.
Still: we would be equally bereft of sense to assume that darkness would drive out darkness. You may have heard that only light can do that. For all the bad and rot everywhere, urban, suburban and rural, at home and abroad, there were the moments in between that made everything we experience every day that kept us together, however briefly. If we experienced them together? All the better.
As Bootsy Collins said in 1972, “Balance is my thing/The snow, wind and rain must come.” With that, we delve into the year that was, with an eye toward the twelvemonth ahead.
There is way too much television content out there right now. While this could be an understatement, consider the following: “Comedians portraying a fictional version of themselves” is now a comedy subgenre. At least five of these shows have premiered since 2010, and there are probably more examples if you stretch the definition a bit. All are set in urban environments and feature a famous comedian playing a not-yet-famous performer who is unlucky in love and life, and probably depressed as a result.
These shows are meta as hell, but they still expect the audience to empathize with the characters as if they were not just stand-ins for the comedians. It seems doubtful anyone would have understood how this could become a trend as recently as ten years ago, but now standup is practically a stepping stone to creating dramedies, not helming a sitcom. Comedians are now expected to be auteurs.
Aziz Ansari’s Master of None returned with a new season a few days ago, and it feels most akin to the show that truly started this trend, Louis CK’s Louie. CK and Ansari both masterfully channel the same, neverending frustration of searching for a perfect partner, while also paying tribute the hilarious oddities and breathtaking beauty offered by Manhattan’s diverse expanse.
Aside from my Abercrombie #8 perfume, Gilmore Saturdays were perhaps the most defining aspect of my early teenage years. In 2004, I was 12 and had just transferred to a new school. My less-than-stellar adjustment to this foreign environment prompted my interest in the more naïve and enjoyable world of Stars Hollow. Every Saturday, three consecutive reruns of Gilmore Girls aired from 7 to 10 pm. My dad ordered pizza and watched with me. Like any good father, he was Team Dean.
Eventually, as I came into my own, Gilmore Saturdays became a thing of the past, but my love and affection for the characters did not wane. I loyally collected every season of the show on DVD and faithfully watched every episode over and over again. To this day, after a frustrating week, I always return to the show as a sort of medicine.
There have been a lot of different takes on the revival. I do not pretend to stand apart from the thousands of other fan girls (and guys) who waited with bated breath and took to Twitter immediately following those final four words. My sentiments are surely repetitive and have already been proclaimed through eloquent think pieces and less eloquent social media posts. During a time when the term ‘echo chamber’ takes on increasingly polarizing meaning, there is none more righteous or as passionate as that which Gilmore fans inhabit.
The best part of riding a roller coaster is often the first lift hill. While waiting in a way-too-long queue, the anticipation for the ride only simmers because the mind is restless and bored. Is this terrible wait time-to-ride time ratio even worth it? Yet, somehow, during that slow climb to the first drop, excitement builds exponentially. All of the sudden, the brain thinks, “This is really happening and holy shit, it looks incredibly dangerous.” The imminent thrills are typically right in front of the riders, in plain sight, but that does not take away from the natural release of endorphins that occurs when the coaster lets gravity take over. After that drop, it does not matter if some of the loops and bunny hills cannot compare to the very start of the ride because the initial acceleration was strong enough to carry everyone to end so fast that they barely noticed. The only people who get off of roller coasters without a smile on their faces are the ones who should not have gotten on the ride in the first place.
What that gratuitous, paragraph-long allegory is trying to say is this: the experience of watching a great television drama is a lot like riding a roller coaster over the course of days, weeks, months, or years, depending on whether the viewer was on the train at the beginning or just binged it all on Netflix during one rainy weekend. Mr. Robot’s first season was a near-perfect thrill ride, much like the Coney Island Cyclone often present in the background, and its promise of more crazy loops and fun drops in the future seemed like a sure thing. Unfortunately, the second season did not deliver smooth navigation through inversions and instead opted to jerk the audience sideways through a series fits and starts.
The thing about Netflix original programming is — well, first of all, it’s mostly great. But the thing about it is, sometimes you spend a weekend binging a show, and you love it, and then you completely forget it exists for a year, until the next season comes out. That’s kind of what happened to me and Narcos (the one about the cocaine).
But, because Netflix is kind and generous, they’ve blessed us with a brand new season on Labor Day Weekend. Of all weekends! You know, in case you needed that third day for your binge (but like, honestly, who needs that?). And the thing about Narcos — which is about Pablo Escobar vs. the DEA and the Colombian government, if you needed a refresher and/or didn’t really pay attention to the English subtitles and couldn’t pick up on all the other context clues, is that it takes place mostly in the 1970s and ‘80s, when Escobar was a) alive and b) in charge of basically all the cocaine in the world.
Obvious Editor’s Note: SPOILERS AHEAD
Entering the finale, The Night Of was either the tale of an innocent man broken by a broken system, or that of a guilty man whose impropriety was slowly revealed to himself and those around him. I began the final episode of the miniseries unsure which I was watching. I didn’t want to believe Naz was guilty. Neither did the show. That’s why we met a quiet, reserved young man in the premier, one anxious to attend a party with a crowd he obviously yearned to be a part of. But slowly we learned about Naz’s seedier past. We learned he sold drugs. He assaulted two classmates. We saw he had the propensity to seek violent retribution again a fellow inmate and aided Freddie’s murder.